From Bernard Haykel
The Saudis have been remarkably tight-lipped about the U.S. presidential election and about whom they favor among the candidates. Their reticence can be explained, in part, by their bewilderment at the choice.
They don’t know what to think of the real possibility that a young and charismatic black candidate might win. Senator Obama represents the joker in the deck, although they also have a sense that in terms of the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East (i.e., oil security and Israel’s security) little will change regardless of the election’s outcome. In other words, they feel the regime’s survival is assured because of the importance of oil.
Historically, the Saudis have favored Republicans for the following reasons: 1) a shared social and economic conservatism and a visceral anti-Communism; 2) the closer ties that Republicans are thought to have to the oil companies and the weapons industry, which represent the two domestic constituencies of, and therefore lobbyists for, the Saudi government in the U.S. political system; and 3) a highly personal (anti-institutional) form of political engagement in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East. The Saudis like the current President Bush on a personal level, and he appears to relish the all-male gatherings in Saudi Arabia, as can be seen during his last trip to Riyadh in January.
The royal family’s objection to G.W. Bush’s policies have to do with what they perceive to be his impulsive and rash behavior as well as his high-stakes style in foreign policy. On the whole, the Saudis were not in favor of the invasion of Iraq because they were worried of the instability that this would create in the region. The Saudis are, if anything, conservative and don’t like to gamble their survival on military campaigns unless these are absolutely necessary, as in the 1991 Gulf war against the Iraqi invader of Kuwait. Instead, they prefer other means, which include financial inducements and fighting through proxies (e.g., Lebanon today).
Based on all the above, I would guess that the Saudis would prefer if McCain were to win. Furthermore, there are indications that they have a strong dislike to Senator Biden, primarily because of his public criticism of the Saudi royal family, its religious policies, and the very form of rule it represents. The Saudis have been relatively discreet about this animus towards Biden, and when it has surfaced, as in an editorial article by Jamal Khashogi in Al-Watan newspaper earlier this year, it has criticized Biden for his plan to divide Iraq into three parts. I believe the Saudis feel that they can proceed with business-as-usual with McCain but not with Biden, who is, paradoxically perhaps, more ideological when it comes to reforming Saudi Arabia’s regime.
Whatever the outcome of the U.S. election, the Saudis are sitting on a large pile of cash which is the result of record-high prices for oil and they can easily balance their budgets as long as the price remains roughly at or above the $50 mark per barrel. They are secure in the short term and confident that their people don’t want to see an Iraq-like scenario envelop the Kingdom.
The more imaginative among the Saudis think that they can reinvigorate their relationship and alliance with the United States on the basis of the excess capacity Saudi Arabia enjoys in terms of oil production. What this means is that the Saudis today have a significant power over the downward price of oil because they can increase supply of this product at will, and the demand is no longer there to suck up all the world’s production. Unlike the Saudis, the Iranians and the Russians cannot balance their budgets if the price is anywhere below the $70s to $90s per barrel range. The Saudis therefore have the means, but not necessarily the will, to punish the Iranians and Russians, and this is a fact that should not escape any new administration in the White House. The luck of the House of Saud never seems to run out.
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